The Turn of the Screw

Preview: Eugene Opera’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’

Benjamin Britten's spooky 1954 chamber opera haunts Eugene on Halloween weekend.


Henry James’s Gothic tale about a newly hired young governess and two children who quietly live in a remote English country house, only to be visited by apparent ghosts, is the inspiration for Benjamin Britten’s 1954 spellbinding chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw. The Eugene Opera will perform this haunting story twice over the Halloween weekend.

This chamber opera production, which opens the Eugene Opera’s 2015-2016 season, features an ensemble of six established and emerging stars with ties to the Pacific Northwest. Twenty-year veteran of traditional and contemporary opera and UO voice faculty member Laura Decher Wayte plays the unsuspecting governess who is welcomed to Bly Manor by Portland mezzo soprano Beth Madsen Bradford in the role of its housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. The seemingly happy children, Miles (performed by fourth year UO music composition and voice undergraduate Carolyn Quick) and sister Flora (sung by Salem native Emily Way), slowly become demonstratively disruptive.

Brendan Tuohy as Quint and Tess Altiveros as Ms. Jessel in Eugene Opera's production of 'The Turn of the Screw." Photo: CliffColes / EugeneOpera.

Brendan Tuohy as Quint and Tess Altiveros as Ms. Jessel in Eugene Opera’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Photo: Cliff Coles / Eugene Opera.

As the story (adapted from James’s 1898 novella by Myfanwy Piper) unfolds, the housekeeper reveals that Peter Quint, a former manservant, sung by Brendan Tuohy, and Miss Jessel, a former governess, performed by Seattle soprano Tess Altiveros, were suspected of child abuse and that both had died under mysterious circumstances. The new governess believes that the children may be haunted by the ghosts of Quint and Jessel and, sensing they are in danger, realizes it is up her to take action.

Emily Way as Flora and Laura Wayte as Governess in Eugene Opera's production of Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw." Photo: Cliff Coles / Eugene Opera.

Emily Way as Flora and Laura Wayte as Governess in Eugene Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” Photo: Cliff Coles / Eugene Opera.

The Turn of the Screw and the May 2016 production of Mark Adamo’s chamber opera Little Women, mark a major change in Eugene Opera’s traditional programming schedule by doubling the season’s offerings. This year, each opera, including the company’s fully staged productions of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Eugene Onegin by Peter Tchaikovsky, has been inspired by a work of fiction. A variety of entertaining and informative events have been scheduled to explore the interrelationship between the original literature and each opera inspired by it.

The cast of "Turn of the Screw." Photo: Cliff Coles / Eugene Opera.

The cast of “Turn of the Screw.” Photo: Cliff Coles / Eugene Opera.

Eugene Opera’s General Director Mark Beudert and University of Oregon Professor of Philosophy Scott Pratt go behind the scenes of Britten’s opera to reveal the hard work and technical expertise required by the performance on stage in a pre-performance Opera Insights talk at 6:45 pm on Friday, October 30, and at 1:45 pm Sunday, November 1, in the Hult Center Lobby.

Public events earlier this month included an early screening and discussion of The Innocents, a film based on James’s The Turn of the Screw, starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave, directed by Jack Clayton with screenplay by Truman Capote and William Archibald, a Listen Now series presentation in which educator, musician and conductor Vincent Centeno explored the musical themes of Britten’s opera, and a free talk, “Fixing Phantoms in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw,” by UO Instructor Brendan O’Kelly.

The Turn of the Screw with Michael Sakir, Eugene Opera’s guest conductor, will be performed in the Hult Center for the Performing Arts Soreng Theater at 7:30 pm, Friday, October 30 and 2:30 pm November 1.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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A tightly sprung turn of the screw

Portland Shakespeare Project's spry and stimulating stage version of Henry James's classic ghost story teases the tension in the tale

A great ghost story answers few questions. It seeps in and slithers out, raising the hair on your neck and revealing almost nothing but impressions of what may or may not have taken place.

That’s why The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s 1898 novella, is such a classic of the genre, and why not only readers, but also composers and playwrights, return to it again and again. The tale combines pinpoint writerly erudition with emotional and factual obfuscation. What really happened in those few short days at Bly House, the English country manse by the lake? Was the boy possessed? Did the ghosts exist? If evil truly was in the air, what was its source? Was the young governess a heroine, or criminally insane?

Harder and Millican: chills, thrills ...

Harder and Millican: chills, thrills …

James’s story leaves it all up in the air, where the shades of memory and overwrought imagination fly, and people have been interpreting it freely for more than a century, not only as a human puzzle but also as an artistic archetype. How can the tale be told in other ways, and still remain true to the original?

In his 1954 opera adaptation, Benjamin Britten retold it with terse and muscular music and a libretto by Myfanwy Piper that moves swiftly but fully, bringing everyone to the stage, spectral and not: Portland Opera presented a fine production of it in 2009 that was big on visual effects.